I love writing about travel and places I’ve been. But while castles in Spain and ancient monuments in Rome are quite exciting, sometimes a day trip close to home can show you things just as amazing.
Last June, my book group read The Personal Librarian by Marie Benedict, which is the story of Belle da Costa Greene, the young woman who took over as librarian for the billionaire J. Pierpont Morgan at a time when women did not usually hold such important positions. That is not even the most amazing thing about Bella though. She was a black woman who passed as white in an era when she would not even been allowed to enter the places she visited to obtain items for the library, much less hob nob with the upper crust of society in their mansions on Fifth Avenue.
Suffice it to say that her exquisite taste and knowledge, financed with Morgan’s money, combined to create an amazing repository of such valuables as folios of Shakespeare (one of Morgan’s most sought-after and treasured acquisitions), original scores by renowned composers such as Mozart, medieval and renaissance artwork, and of course, more ancient manuscripts and books by Geoffrey Chaucer and many writers. Even the brass bell from his sailing ship, the Corsair, has pride of place in the more modern entry way to the Museum.
Having spent the previous month gaping over Botticelli’s in the Ufizzi Gallery and Michaelangelo’s sculpture of David in Florence, you would think this comparatively small library/museum would have been a let-down for me. But in fact, it was exquisite. Morgan didn’t collect for sheer volume, he collected things he loved that reflected his special interests.
And he constructed the perfect building to house his treasures—filled with historic architectural features such as the stained glass ceiling in the library room itself, as well as archways, fireplaces, windows and rooms as fine as anything on the continent.
We were a very giddy book group to be able to see the Morgan buildings and artifacts for ourselves after reading the book that described how all of this was accomplished.
Visiting the Morgan Library takes a bit of planning, as you must purchase tickets in advance for a certain time of admission. This keeps crowds at a very reasonable size, which is a big plus when you want to take your time looking as ancient artifacts or the covers of books which are literally priceless.
We had also hoped to visit it’s much-praised restaurant, but it has been closed recently, and so we just had tea in the solarium cafeteria and ate downtown after our visit.
IF YOU GO:
Built in 1924, the Morgan Library & Museum, formerly the Pierpont Morgan Library, is a museum and research library in the Murray Hill neighborhood of Manhattan in New York City. It is situated at 225 Madison Avenue, between 36th Street to the south and 37th Street to the north. PHONE: (212) 685-0008 for more information or reservations.
If you are thinking about a trip in the near future, here are some hints I’ve learned throughout decades of traveling—not only in Europe, but anywhere outside of the U.S.
INDEPENDENT OR TOUR? Both tours and independent travel have good aspects. Early on, I took organized tours because traveling abroad was all new to me and I had no idea how to navigate on my own, nor do I speak any other language. Way back then, it was more difficult to plan things on your own without the advantage of the Internet for doing research on your itinerary and making reservations. It involved old-fashioned snail mail and costly overseas phone calls.
Today, if you are not a veteran traveler (or even if you are) who is determined to cover a lot of territory, a tour is still probably the best idea. Everything is planned out for you and your guide can help you if any problems arise.
However, since the 1990s, I have planned our trips independently, including my most recent trip to Italy, as well as a month-long tour of Spain, my so-called “Mozart” trip to Prague, Vienna and Salzburg, and a trip to England and Scotland.
HOTEL OR AIRBNB: Early on, I booked hotels, but now I prefer Airbnbs or VRBO because they offer me more of the ambience of another country. Think a Tuscan-themed apartment right near the sites in Florence; a white-washed apartment in the midst of Rome with its own courtyard for evenings relaxing with Prosecco, or your own cabin on a hillside in Sorrento. Also, if you need more than one bedroom, a hotel will be more expensive. I have done this in the States and abroad.
But do allow for special accommodations in various countries. For instance, in Spain we booked rooms at their famous Paradors, which are renovated palaces, castles, abbeys, etc., which also offer wonderful local cuisine. I loved having Spanish hams, goat cheese, and figs with my breakfast. In London I booked modest accommodations except for a splurge on a hotel on Russell Square featuring a staircase by the same designer as the one on the Titanic. One time in Austria we booked a gorgeous schloss (once an aristocratic hunting lodge) in the Vienna Woods, only to disccover it had a fantastic.view but no air-conditioining! So always check the details!
You have to be careful choosing your bookings—read every review available, and check out the location so you are not too far from the main sites, but not too close to noise and traffic. Check if there is a metro or bus stop fairly nearby.
BUSES AND TRAINS: Oh yes, don’t be afraid of using local transit. The trains and buses in Europe are far superior to ours and can get you anywhere you want to go quickly and cheaply. We also used cabs in Italy, which were affordable enough, but then we figured out the bus and train schedules and off we went.
SPECIAL HINTS: Look for specific hints from seasoned travelers on travel bulletin boards online. But, allow for differences in opinions. For instance, I was convinced that I would look like a fool in Italy if I did not eat the traditional 3-course meal of appetizer or soup, pasta course, and main entrée, plus dessert. I thought the waiter would throw up his/her arms in disgust. But guess what? That did not happen. They are used to tourists who have different customs. The three courses were too much for me. So, I might have a Caprese salad and a pasta. Or soup and entrée. Nobody blinked.
PACKING: This could be a whole separate article, and maybe it will be in the future. But please, please take my advice, especially in these days when airports are in such chaos.
On my most recent trip abroad, I took a 21-inch carry-on suitcase onboard for overhead storage and a tote that fit under the seat. Believe me or not, but there was actually one pair of slacks I didn’t even wear!
On the plane I wore black capri pants, a striped tee top, a black jersey sweater, and black walking shoes.
IN MY TOTE: In my underseat tote I packed my Iphone, a small pillow, water bottle, medications, passport and vaccination cards, masks (this was last May), copies of our plane/ lodging reservations, electronics including air pods, charger, and travel adapter; a clear bag of liquids according to TSA guidelines including hand gel, shampoo/conditioner, hairspray, toothpaste/brush, small perfume; a cosmetic bag with lipstick, eyeliner and shadow with brush, hair pick, Kleenex, shower cap, floss, deodorant, sleep mask, small mirror, Suduko booklet, pencil, pen, wipes, sunglasses,and snacks (pretzels, biscotti).
IN MY SUITCASE: I bought a Travelon purse that provides extra security with straps that resist cutting, and which I packed flat in my suitcase, along with a beige sunhat and small umbrella.
Also in my 21-inch suitcase (the size required, and which cannot weigh over 22 pounds) were a light laundry bag, underwear, bras, 2 nylon nightgowns (easy to launder), another pair of black shoes, black sandals for beach and shower, pink wristlet purse, 3 sundresses, 2 skirts, beige cotton slacks (did not wear), and dressier black capris with lace trim. These were paired with a pink polka dot top, black and white polka dot tee top, black long and short-sleeved tee tops, white cotton gauze blouse. Also, a pink cotton shawl (pink was my accent color), beige scarf, blue scarf, bathing suit and travel towel (available on Amazon, foldable with mesh bag).
I wore things that were light and cool but not messy. Scarves dressed things up. I used a black, white and beige theme with some pink accents.
What I did not need: Beige cotton slacks (I preferred sundresses and skirts in the heat), small Sudoko book (no time), and pink wristlet purse. I could have done with one pair of shoes and the sandals. What I did need: It was cold and rainy our first night in Florence and I bought a pashmina from a street vendor. But I am glad I did not pack one as it gave me a souvenir.
HINTS: Whatever you might forget, trust me, they have it there. I thought I lost my deodorant, but bought another one there. Also, allow that you might want to buy tee or sweat shirts, a pretty hat or handbag, beach tote, sandals, or jewelry on your vacation. Jewelry is a great souvenir because it is small and every time you wear it, you remember where you bought it.
I do not take any extra jewelry with me, having lost valuable/sentimental pieces a long time ago in a hotel theft in Miami Beach. I wear my wedding/engagement rings, another ring, a bracelet, and a pendant necklace that go with everything—no losing or leaving behind. I do not take them off in the hotel room for fear of forgetting or losing. (A friend of mine lost her heirloom diamond by knocking it down a drain.)
Why you should do this: There are thousands of stories of lost luggage right now. A friend recently asked my advice before leaving for Scotland with her sister and brother-in-law. Upon her return, she thanked me because she did the 10-day trip with one small suitcase and a carry-on with no problems. Her relatives said such light packing was impossible, but their luggage was lost when they landed, they had no extra clothing for the tour (always pack at least one change in your carry-on if you insist on checking baggage), and their suitcases have yet to be found, months later.
The Scranton Shakespeare Festival will be introducing a new kind of entertainment this holiday season with its Pantomime production of Snow White and the Seven Scrantonians at the Marketplace at Steamtown from Dec. 15-18 written and directed by Billie Aken-Tyers, an SSF alumna.
In addition to providing a jolly good time to audiences young and old, the show will raise funds to renovate the festival’s new space at the marketplace for more flexible programming.
Ticket buyers will literally be helping with both renovating the space and helping to fund the free professional summer season of musical and plays by Shakespeare.
Because Panto, a British tradition, is new to Scranton, we have conducted a Q&A with the playwright, and with Jonathan Stephens, SSF managing director, both of whom hail from the UK.
Help us out. What exactly is panto?
JONATHAN: Pantomimes pop up around the holidays and retell classic fairy tales through farce, song, dance, and slapstick fun! It’s a classic tradition that originated in the United Kingdom using a stylized theatrical performance rooted in the method of commedia dell’arte. Using comedy along with plenty of glitz and audience participation, pantos welcome all ages for an incredibly accessible evening of encapsulating storytelling.
Do you remember seeing your first panto in the UK?
BILLIE: Every Christmas Our school would take us to see the big pantomime at the Theatre Royal in Newcastle. It was a big deal, very expensive and flashy, and always so much fun. The kids would get very excited, and so would the adults. As I got older and started to realise how tongue-in-cheek panto was, I started to appreciate the humor more than anything else.
Panto has always been a part of my life since I can remember– the tradition is so embedded that I can’t even recall my first one.It’s symbolistic to me of a perfect family night out; there’s truly something for everyone. Dazzling colours, hilariously over-the-top characters, sing along songs – a whirlwind of memories to be made!
Billie,tell us about the original panto script you are writing and directing for ScrantonShakesl
BILLIE: The key to a good panto is that it feels like it is a part of the community. So, there will be plenty of NEPA specific humor happening. Pantos typically follow a basic fairytale plotline, with catchy pop songs thrown in, and the occasional vaudeville sketch. Lots of color, dancing, singing and silliness abounds. With the occasional tongue in cheek joke for the adults!
Why did ScrantonShakes decide to introduce this uniquely British theater experience to Scranton?
JONATHAN: We’re passionate about accessible storytelling at Scranton Shakes, and always love introducing fun new experiences to NEPA audiences that the whole family can enjoy. Panto provides all of those things! Given the amount of British collaborators (including myself) we’ve worked with during the life of Scranton Shakes, it was a perfect match for our mission and our know-how! We’ve wanted to bring a fun new tradition to Scranton and we think everyone is going to love experiencing Snow White and the Seven Scrantonians the Scranton Shakes way.
BILLIE: Clue us in. What kind of experience can the ScrantonShakes audiences expect?
Be prepared for lots of fun! Pantos are loud affairs, it’s interactive, and we want the audience to be involved. I almost can’t quantify what Panto is in a sentence because it’s so entrenched in British culture. But at its essence it’s about laughter, community and holiday cheer. Panto was and always has been theatre for the masses. Which feels very akin to what Scranton Shakes is doing in Lackawanna County!
How can people reserve tickets?
JONATHAN: Tickets are on sale now! The easiest way to get yours is via our website at Scrantonshakes.com. You can also give our box office a call at (570) 230-7277. We highly recommend booking tickets in advance to avoid disappointment.
Wbo we are:
Billie’s work as an Actor, Director and Playwright has appeared on numerous stages internationally. Selected Credits:Fairycakes Off-Broadway(Greenwich House Theatre) Ragtag Theatre’s Cinderella (Soho Playhouse,Redhouse Arts, Barrington Stage Company), Regional: Hood (Dallas Theater Center) The Revolutionists (Lake Dillon Theatre) Mamma Mia! (Mill Mountain Theater) How to Succeed, Footloose, Much Ado, Pirates of Penzance (Scranton Shakes seven seasons). Directing: Your Alice(BAM, Edinburgh Fringe, Arcola Theatre, London) Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella (Shenandoah Music Theatre) Joseph and the Technicolor Dreamcoat (SSF) and Lysistrata Jones (Nominated for Outstanding Production, NYIT Awards). Writing: Your Alice (BAM, EdFringe, Ophelia Theatre) Next Round, (Theatre Lab, Gala Theatre Online), We Carry On- A series of radio plays. Barrington Stage Playwright mentor. www.billieakentyers.com @billieakentyers
Jonathan has been with Scranton Shakes since its third season, in 2014. Initially seen “treading the boards” as Pinocchio inFairycakes and as a tap dancing police officer in Pirates of Penzance, he has since moved into arts administration and producing at SSF, Jonathan has also worked as management for Punchdrunk’s sell-out show SLEEP NO MORE in New York City, The National Theatre of Scotland’s The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart and on Broadway for New York City Center’s Encores! production of The Band Wagon. Jonathan also enjoys a taste of the TV and film industry, and is grateful to have worked with some of the greats, including Warner Brothers Studios and AppleTV+.
Maureen, who is editor of The Dunmorean, is in her third term as board chairman of Scranton Shakespeare, and has been involved with the organization since its founding 11 years ago.